This post has been knocking around in my head, in an embryonic state, since Memorial Day and it seems fitting that today, on another “patriotic” holiday, I actually take the time to sit down and write it. Or, at the very least, hammer out some of the thoughts that have been chasing themselves around in my head for over a month.
When it comes to political debate in this country I find myself, most of the time, either confused or appalled. And when it comes to what I think of as patriotic positioning I am just plain confused. The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines patriot as “one who defends or is zealous for his country’s prosperity, freedom or rights”, which is a perfectly clear definition until you probe a little deeper and realize that the ways in which prosperity, freedom and rights are defined can differ from person to person – or community to community – and with no agreement on those meanings the definition of patriot becomes somewhat ambiguous. What does it mean to “love one’s country”? Is it a passive attachment, trumpeting a party line without giving the meaning any thought? Or is it a strenuous give-and-take, a love for an ideal that has not yet been achieved and the commitment to work passionately towards the realization of that ideal? With no agreement on the “ideal”, what does being a patriot really mean?
I am the daughter, granddaughter and niece of veterans (WWII, WWI and Korea, respectively) and the views I hold I get from my family, rather than in rebellion against them. My uncle, whose great skill was as a gardener, ran the hydroponic gardens that fed the troops in Korea. My father, whose talent for languages had him speaking nine by his early twenties, served as an interpreter and translator. It is my grandfather, though, whose story holds the most fascination for me. He was the youngest child in a family but lately arrived in the US from what was then Prussia (and is now Poland). When war was declared he knew that in all likelihood he had cousins serving in the Kaiser’s army, and he knew that he could not live with himself if he were, even unwittingly, to cause the death of a relative. He enlisted as a driver and drove officers all over the front lines in Europe – but never once carried a weapon. He was gassed, he suffered shell shock, and he did it for an ideal – the hope that this was the war that would end all wars.
We always celebrated Veterans’ Day in my house, but it was a day of grief. For my grandfather in particular, it was a day that commemorated a great failing: an astronomical loss of life in service of an unrealized ideal.
My partner, T, is a Revolutionary War re-enactor and I accompany him to many events. I enjoy the friendships I have made with people in the regiment, and the hobby at large, and I enjoy the freedom from the electronic leash that occasional forays to the 18th century give me. I wish, however, that more of the events were focused on portrayals of actual living history – how people lived at the time, rather than on the noise, chaos and simulated death of the battles.
So here I find myself, on another July 4th, no closer to an understanding of what it means to be patriotic. Sure, it is nice to have a day off in the middle of the week (this year, at least), and I enjoy a backyard cookout as much as anyone else. I am not a fan of fireworks, but that is just me. But I find it hard to believe that this is patriotism. I guess, like so much else in this country, patriotism is a work in progress.
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